Expertise effects in the Moses illusion: detecting contradictions with stored knowledge

Memory. 2017 Feb;25(2):220-230. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2016.1152377. Epub 2016 Feb 26.


People frequently miss contradictions with stored knowledge; for example, readers often fail to notice any problem with a reference to the Atlantic as the largest ocean. Critically, such effects occur even though participants later demonstrate knowing the Pacific is the largest ocean (the Moses Illusion) [Erickson, T. D., & Mattson, M. E. (1981). From words to meaning: A semantic illusion. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 20, 540-551]. We investigated whether such oversights disappear when erroneous references contradict information in one's expert domain, material which likely has been encountered many times and is particularly well-known. Biology and history graduate students monitored for errors while answering biology and history questions containing erroneous presuppositions ("In what US state were the forty-niners searching for oil?"). Expertise helped: participants were less susceptible to the illusion and less likely to later reproduce errors in their expert domain. However, expertise did not eliminate the illusion, even when errors were bolded and underlined, meaning that it was unlikely that people simply skipped over errors. The results support claims that people often use heuristics to judge truth, as opposed to directly retrieving information from memory, likely because such heuristics are adaptive and often lead to the correct answer. Even experts sometimes use such shortcuts, suggesting that overlearned and accessible knowledge does not guarantee retrieval of that information.

Keywords: Memory; expertise; heuristics; knowledge.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Illusions*
  • Knowledge*
  • Memory*
  • Professional Competence*